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U. to monitor athletes for bioterror symptoms

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Another armament against the potential threat of terrorism during next month's Olympic Games has been assembled at the University of Utah.

But unlike the military might at all venue sites on the ground, and the police helicopters that will be flying during events overhead, the most recently revealed surveillance system will be used to track the invisible threat of bioterrorism.

U. researchers since mid-October have been developing a surveillance system that analyzes data from electronic medical records to continuously monitor for abnormal patterns in patients' symptoms that could flag a bioterrorism attack.

Called EPIC, it is being touted as one of the most advanced outpatient electronic medical records systems in use across the country because it affords a complex analysis of multiple pieces of information on ailing patients, including X-rays, blood tests and lab results, vital signs including heart rate and temperature, as well as disease symptoms and diagnoses.

As a result, EPIC is expected to alert public-health workers with early detection of bioterrorism events based on trends unearthed in the data. That in turn will help clinicians distinguish between, say, an outbreak of influenza and an anthrax attack, said Dr. Kurt Hegmann, associate professor in the public health programs at the U.'s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. As was learned during anthrax attacks in the United States late last year, flu symptoms mimic those associated with an anthrax bacterial infection. And the Olympics are being held at the height of Utah's flu season.

"Because it is a computer-based system . . . it'll all be right there at our fingertips," Hegmann said.

EPIC is a collaborative effort between the U.'s community clinics and its public health programs. It was purchased from a Wisconsin company a few years ago with the intent of streamlining patient data through a computer-based system and improving patient outcomes and care. After Sept. 11, U. researchers realized it also could be used to track and combat bioterrorism attacks and other contagious illnesses, thus enhancing the Utah Department of Health's statewide infectious disease surveillance program in its epidemiology department.

To fund the effort of retrofitting the program for intense analysis of medical records, the researchers applied for, and received, a $25,000 grant from the California-based Thrasher Research Fund, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to advancing better health. "We have spent many, many hours implementing the bioterrorism element of this program to set up the tools to analyze the electronic medical data, and without this grant, we would not be doing this," Hegmann said.

In addition to data gathered by the U. researchers, the state Health Department also crunches data filed by local health departments. As a result, the state is able to track and combat infectious diseases throughout Utah, hopefully before such illnesses reach mammoth proportions, like Utah's landmark measles outbreak in 1996 that, with 119 cases, made it the worst in the nation. Other troubling infectious diseases known to plague the state in past years have been hepatitis A, salmonella, whooping cough and the rodent-born hantavirus.

"Through all of these efforts, we will be able to look for trends and changes and see them from an Olympic theater-wide perspective," said Jana Kettering, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health. "After all, viruses don't know geographical boundaries, so by sharing information, we'll be able to prevent further transmission, no matter where it occurs."

Added Hegmann: "We are absolutely thrilled with this opportunity. This has the potential, long-term, of improving health in Utah well beyond the Olympics because we'll be able to track an influenza outbreak and many other outbreaks, sooner than through traditional methods and hopefully impact people's health in a a positive way."

E-MAIL: nwagner@desnews.com